MIT’s Cheetah robot has already beaten the speed record set by Usain Bolt (the world’s fastest man) and now it’s coming after Aries Merritt (the world’s fastest hurdler, of course). Researchers at the university’s Biometrics Robotics Lab have upgraded Cheetah with new algorithms that allow it to detect and jump over obstacles up to 40 centimeters tall — the first four-legged robot to do so autonomously.
“A running jump is a truly dynamic behavior,” said Sangbae Kim, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, in a press release. “You have to manage balance and energy, and be able to handle impact after landing. Our robot is specifically designed for those highly dynamic behaviors.”To create Cheetah’s new jumping ability, researchers installed LIDAR on the robot to map out its surrounding terrain. (These are the same sensors used by self-driving cars — they bounce laser pulses off their surroundings and record the time they take to return to the source to estimate distances.) Then, they designed a trio of algorithms: the first detects an obstacle and estimates its size and distance; the second determines where Cheetah’s feet need to be to at the start of its jump, adjusting the robot’s stride to get there at the right time; and finally, the third calculates the amount of force needed to clear the obstacle.
Kim explains that it’s possible to optimize these algorithms for energy efficiency so that the robot just clears the obstacle, but this is dangerous. “We’re too obsessed with optimal solutions,” says Kim. “This is one example where you just have to be good enough, because you’re running, and have to make a decision very quickly.”